It was a simple plan. Build a railroad. In the Arctic. Use prison labor with half of them in the prisons for political reasons. Stalin brought this diabolical method into harsh reality in 1947. The output from the mines could be moved by land instead of the long sea route. And prisoners could be worked to death to make it happen.
An Ill-Considered Plan
Salekhard was too shallow for the big boats so they would build a railroad to get to the better port to the east on the Yenisey. Salekhard would connect to the new port city at Igarka. The existing rail system ended near Salekhard at Labytnangi. It still does. The nickel mines at Norilsk, north of Igarka, would ship by rail.
The Work Begins
But all this was not as important as making work for political prisoners. They started working eastward from Salekhard and westward from Igarka. Working conditions for the laborers would have been harsh anyway as they built everything by hand. It was too hard to get mechanical equipment to a place so remote.
As the marshes and swamps thawed, millions of mosquitoes came forth. The winter brought relief from that scourge by replacing it with blood freezing blizzards. The conditions were bleak anyway in the labor camps and the isolation made it difficult for authorities to check how things were going. The wooden bridges and buildings were constructed without regard to conditions of the Arctic climate. The rail lines were not reinforced to deal with the permafrost in any way. Often workers were punished by withholding food for missing unreasonable work quotas.
With all this terrible treatment of the workers, the quality of the work was low. And Nature began to reclaim what had been constructed. The washouts and behavior of the soil ruined what had been built. What remains of the railway is still disappearing into the taiga.
End of the Line
Thousands had died during the construction of the Salekhard-Igarka Railway. In 1953 Stalin died and the project was scrapped. 573 kilometers of track had been laid that connected to nothing. 3 billion rubles had been thrown away with all the human suffering and death. The western half of the line between Salekhard and Nadym was the only part of the rail line that was ever used. And it was shut down in 1990 and recycled for scrap.
Did Everyone Leave?
Many former prisoners of those awful camps stayed on after being released from their forced labor. They had built the cities by hand. Guaranteed salaries and social benefits were offered to the workers. A new standard brought a level of social infrastructure in the cities that were high by Soviet standards. The high salaries offered and improved conditions began to attract workers from across the Union. New energy came with dedicated communists that wanted to challenge the Arctic with their idealistic attitudes.
Improved methods of construction suited to the Arctic made buildings durable. Innovation in mining processes brought more wealth out of the ground. The living conditions are still rough. The weather is still bad in both summer and winter. Don’t forget that there is no sun whatsoever for 45 days in the winter. The people are still isolated. The snow never completely melts. But workers can forget about all that for a few days vacation in the comfortable spas available to the workers. And don’t forget the high pay. And maybe take a cruise up the Yenisey to the Arctic Ocean on your week off.
The people can leave and the state offers plane tickets and money to residents of 15 years or more. And free accommodation anywhere else in the country for life. But many older residents on pensions stay. The new workers who come are usually specifically recruited for specialized jobs and come for the secure employment built on the never-ending minerals found in the frozen ground.
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